Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Reviewing Books: A Gift For Your Favorite Author

From today's Book View Cafe blog:

Michael K. Rose blogged here on 5 Ways to Help Authors Without Spending a Dime. He suggests using Tags and other tools on Amazon.com, as well as Facebook shares and Twitter ReTweets to “boost the signal” for your favorite author’s books. I think this is all very well, using the system of referral algorithms (“Readers who liked this book, also liked that other book”) to direct potential buyers.

Catherine Mintz pointed out that a thoughtful review is even more effective. Depending on where the review gets posted, that can be the equivalent of “word of mouth,” which is a good thing. But it leads — for me, anyway, and I suspect for far too many other readers — to daunting prospect of actually writing such a review.

Between them, high school book review assignments and professional reviewers had done a disservice to the greater mass of readers (my husband subscribes to the New York Times Review of Books, which always comes to my mind as an example of reviews that look to be as demanding to write as the books themselves!) Although I may appreciate the exercise in comparative literature, historical perspective, and contemporary social values — these are not the reviews I want to write, or can write with any degree of facility.

For a long time, I felt guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to write such detailed and well-researched analyses. That guilt turned into a major obstacle to my writing any reviews at all. With time and professional confidence, I reached the point of being able to chuck the old expectations. It’s not that I lack opinions on what I read, but rather that for the most part, I read subjectively and for my own pleasure. Therefore, my experience of a book is highly colored by the specific environment — inner and outer — in which I read it. Here’s my second revelation: Personal, subjective reviews are as interesting and valuable as scholarly dissertations.

I think it’s valid to talk about books that rescued us from despair, entertained us during illness, comforted us like companions, or transformed our worlds. I love hearing those stories from others. So why shouldn’t I tell my own versions — as reviews? Maybe review is a poor vessel to hold both such idiosyncratic, emotional responses but it’s what we’ve got.

I’m trying to make a habit of writing a few lines about every book I finish (or fail to finish, and why). Sometimes I put them up on various review sites, including online bookstores, LibraryThing and Goodreads; other times, they end up in a blog or LiveJournal post. I encourage you to do the same, even if it’s just a few lines. You don’t have to repeat the plot (that’s one part I always hated, although — paradoxically and capriciously — I sometimes like that in a review if I want to know more about the book). How did the book strike you? Would you have enjoyed it more at a different time of your life? Did it remind you of other times, other places? How does it stand up to the book before that? Would you read this author’s next work? Would you recommend it to a friend and if so, which friend?
And also… would you like to see my own reviews here?

The painting is Young Man Reading by Matthias Stom (1600-1649). When I look at it, I wonder who he is, what he’s reading, and how it is changing his life. He looks a little sad, so I wonder if it’s poetry. Probably not The Lives of the Saints. What do you think?

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